Tribut Apparel Schools You on blues rock jam band Blues Traveler

Most bands cannot claim to have the best musician on a particular instrument in their group. But Blues Traveler is not most bands. John Popper is, to my mind, the best of the best on harmonica. The first time I heard this band, I didn’t even think the harmonica was a harmonica. I thought it was some kind of keyboard from outer space. That’s how good Popper sounds. Like Joe Bonamassa with guitar, John Popper is a virtuoso on his instrument. If for no other reason, that makes Blues Traveler a band worthy of your attention. But there are many more reasons for that as well. Here are the five things you need to know about Blues Traveler to get a good handle on this incredible band.

1. Blues Traveler Started as a Princeton, NJ Garage Rock Band

Blues Traveler originally hails from the city of Princeton, New Jersey. Like many-a-band, Blues Traveler formed as a high school garage band. Now most high school garage bands don’t make it too far outside of the garage. But again, Blues Traveler is not most bands.

Before they became known as Blues Traveler, they had several other names. The first was The Establishment. Then, they became Blues Band (I like that one). But ultimately they would settle on the name Blues Traveler. They added the word “traveler” after being inspired by the movie Ghostbusters. You may remember that the villain was referred to on occasion as Gozer the Traveler. If you don’t remember that, you should refresh and re-watch the film because it’s amazing. And there’s a reboot out. But, I digress.

The original lineup of the band included Popper on vocals and harmonica, drummer Brendan Hill, guitarist Chan Kinchla, and Bobby Sheehan on the bass. Kinchla was torn between becoming an athlete (football) and playing music. Fate seems to have decided for him, because after sustaining a knee injury, music seemed to be the more accessible path for him. That worked out because he’s a damn fine guitarist.

2. Blues Traveler’s Sound is a Tasty Treat Filled with Bold Harmonica Morsels

When Blues Traveler originally emerged, they were on the forefront of 1990’s jams bands that included artists like Phish, Dave Matthews Band, and Rusted Root. All of these artists, despite their musical oddities, would go on to find significant mainstream success. Blues Traveler’s music is incredibly distinctive thanks in large part to Popper’s harmonica. But they are also defined by their various influences which include blues, psychedelic, folk, and prog rock.

Blues Traveler is at home writing both tight, concise ditties and long, experimental jams. The latter are a poignant part of their live shows. Their instrumental prowess is part of what sets them apart in the mainstream of rock music. They are not afraid to play and they do. They allow themselves to follow along with wherever the music goes. But as Joe Bonamassa often says, it’s not all about the instrumentals. You’ve got to have the songs. And boy does Blues Traveler have the songs…

3. The Hook Brings You Back: The Essential Songs of Blues Traveler

Looking to dabble in some Blues Traveler music? Here’s a few recommended tracks for you:

  • “But Anyway” – Blues Traveler: The lead track from the band’s first album is an excellent introduction to the band. It’s an epic jam, and a great entry into the wonderful blues harp playing of Mr. John Popper. Pretty sweet guitar riffing as well.
  • “Run-Around” – Four: The hit that made the band’s name. Highly melodic harmonica playing, a smooth, grabbing progression of major chords, and an enchanting melody all make this song a killer hit. It hit #8 on the Billboard charts and helped the band win a Grammy award in the category of “Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group”.
  • “Hook” – Four: “Hook” was the immediate follow-up to their hit “Run-Around”, and it might be even better. The “Rap / fast singing” portion of the songs is a definite highlight by the band. The lyrics, about the art of crafting commercial music, are witty as well.
  • “Carolina Blues” – Straight On Till MorningStraight On Till Morning didn’t find the smash commercial success that it’s immediate predecessor Four did. But it’s lead single, the gritty, rocking “Carolina Blues” won a place in my heart anyway. It’s a brawny blues-rock bash that especially pumps you up in the live setting.
  • “Mountain Time” – Travelers and Thieves – A sprawling 9 minute long track. “Mountain Time” burrows deep into the band’s blues-rock and psychedelic leanings. There’s lots of great harmonica and guitar jamming on this one.

4. Tragedy Strikes Blues Traveler – The Loss of Bassist Bobby Sheehan

Unfortunately, Blues Traveler has not been immune to tragedy. Bassist Bobby Sheehan was lost on August 20, 1999. He succumbed to an accidental drug overdose. There have been many such stories in the history of rock, but it never gets easier to hear about. When such a tragedy strikes, there is of course turmoil within a band. Not least of this turmoil is addressing the existential question: should the band continue without their fallen brother or sister. The band decided that Sheehan would have wanted them to continue making music together. The band carried on, with Chan Kinchla’s younger brother Tad now in the role of bass player. They also hired a full time keyboardist in Ben Wilson. Wilson’s previous background had been in the blues playing with the band Big Dave & The Ultrasonics. The band did carry on, but the loss of Sheehan has not been forgotten by the band or the fans.

5. Blues Traveler Goes Pop? Blow Up the Moon and Future Travels

The band’s latest studio release, the 2015 set Blow Up the Moon, is a bit of a departure from the band’s normal recording M.O. While the band has traditionally not used many guests on their studio albums, Blow Up the Moon is a full on collaborative effort. The collaborators chosen were a number of artists in genres like pop, country and reggae. These included acts like Dirty Heads, Hanson, and Jewel. This lead to a much more pop-oriented, hook-laden sound than Blues Traveler’s audience was used to from the band. In response, Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, “This may not make for an especially good Blues Traveler record yet it does make Blow Up the Moon pleasingly bizarre, a pandering time capsule bound to satisfy no one.” On the other hand, Classic Rock Revisited had a very positive reaction to the record, writing, “Each song makes you fall in love with it, but at the same time it makes you anticipate the next, waiting for what can be in store for you.”

While the album is pleasing from a certain pop music perspective, it lacks the musical substance and depth of its blues rock based predecessors. It’s a rare misstep in the musical history of the band. It’s great for a band to experiment and sometimes trying something fresh doesn’t work out. That’s ok. But next time, it would be best for Blues Traveler to return to their bread and butter, blues and rock roots. With the level of talent possessed by the band it is not at all a stretch to think that they can still be adventurous without crossing over into questionable pop territory. But given that talent I think a return to form soon is inevitable. With any luck, we’ll soon have another Blues Traveler album full of great songs, musical nuance, and killer harmonica and guitar jams.

– Brian M. Reiser,
J&R Adventures / Tribut Apparel

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